During the golden era of Hollywood, Humphrey Bogart was the man. There was something about Bogey, as he was affectionately nicknamed, be it his dashing good looks, quiet charisma, or the brooding, intense “cool” that endeared him to audiences and made him into the quintessential “leading man.” Everyone who followed borrowed something from Bogart, or sought to emulate his electric screen presence, but none really captured the magic that made Bogey, Bogey. Except maybe Denzel Washington.
In a career stretching across three decades, the 55 year-old actor is well established as one of the premier film stars of this generation, becoming a proven box-office draw as well as one of the most critically acclaimed actors of all time. With a new film opening this weekend, Unstoppable, Washington looks to continue his reign as one of America’s most popular figures on the big screen. Oh, and he just so happens to be black.
Given Hollywood’s sketchy racial politics, this isn’t an aspect of Washington’s career that can be glossed over. Black stars of his magnitude are few and far between, with many shining brightly for short periods of time then burning out before any substantive body of work can be established. This is especially true for black Academy Award winners, of which Washington is a two-time recipient.
Typically, after an Oscar win, the opportunities for black actors dwindle and the roles they are offered are not nearly as meaty as the one which secured the award in the first place (think Lou Gossett, Jr., Cuba Gooding, Jr., Forest Whitaker, Jamie Foxx). But more than twenty years after his first Oscar win for breakout role in the Civil War-era drama Glory, Washington has built an impressive resume, a dedicated fanbase, and become the mold from which all young black actors wish to shape their respective careers. He is, quite frankly, the perfect black film star.
WATCH DENZEL DISCUSS HIS LATEST FILM ‘UNSTOPPABLE’
No, he’s not the “hundred million dollar man” that Will Smith is, as Smith is the single largest box-office draw in terms of pure numbers. But what his career lacks that Washington has plenty of is that elusive critical acclaim. Smith gravitates toward large, explosive, blockbuster thrillers that essentially only require him to show up and turn on the Will-Smith-charm, flashing a boyish grin and saving the day from the alien invaders. Not necessarily roles that require one to dig and bring to life memorable characters and convey complex emotions to move the story forward.
Washington has chosen a different path, taking on characters like American Gangster’s Frank Lucas, Training Day’s Alonzo Harris (for which he won his second Oscar), and He Got Game’s Jake Shuttlesworth, all possessing depth, nuance, contradiction, and a sense of frail humanity that challenge the audience to go beyond the linear thinking of “good vs. evil.”
In taking on these more demanding roles, Washington has impressed upon audiences a regality that hearkens back to the days of Sidney Poitier. There is a refined air of sophistication and dignity that appeals to older black patrons who define themselves and their generation on the ideas of respectability. Simultaneously, younger audiences are drawn to the bit of edge he displays, not shying away from characters that are controversial.
Another thing that sets him apart from his contemporaries is a willingness to play the “race man.” Where others may wish to prolong their careers by constantly embodying “race neutral” characters, Washington has put himself squarely in the middle of racial firestorms in films such as A Soldier’s Story, Cry Freedom, the aforementioned Glory, Remember the Titans, The Great Debaters, and of course, his seminal work as the one of the most misunderstood, hugely complicated and highly important figures in American history, Malcolm X. Through his talents, he has made America discuss its dirty little secret, telling uniquely black stories to a much wider audience.
And while he may have portrayed controversial men on screen, his own life has been largely scandal free. He has been married for twenty-seven years, raised four children, and done notable charitable work with the Boys and Girls Club of America. Washington has never been in the news for drunken arrests, valid infidelity claims, or jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch. He has managed to be an A-list star without falling into the trappings of he A-list lifestyle.
As of late, Washington may seem to be “coasting” in regards to his career choices, taking roles where he can essentially phone in his appearances because they don’t require the same gravitas that some of his more memorable work has called for. But truly at this point he has earned a bit of a break. He has supplied us with bevy of awe-inspiring performances, encapsulating myriad forms of black manhood, and become a major Hollywood player.
Bogey would be proud.